PROFESSOR David Bellamy has branded Government proposals to privatise Forestry Commission land as “national vandalism”.

The renowned environmentalist and botanist, who lives near Hamsterley Forest, in County Durham, spoke to The Northern Echo ahead of a consultation on the proposals.

The Government plans to sell off about half of its 1.85m acres between now and 2020, from huge conifer plantations to small neighbourhood woodlands.

About 15 per cent could be sold in the next three years, raising an estimated £80m.

About 20 forests in North Yorkshire and the North-East, including Hamsterley, Guisborough, Dalby and Kielder are under threat.

There is concern that some pockets of land have already been sold, prompting the formation of campaign groups who fear forests could become Center Parcs-style money spinners Prof Bellamy said he was appalled at the notion and warned that “once forests are lost, we can never get them back”.

He said: “It’s our national forest and most people in Europe treasure their national forests. How can anyone think of selling it off? It belongs to the public and has done for a long long time. Why is a national treasure up for sale?

What will Britain have left?”

Prof Bellamy said forests allowed people to have a wonderful holiday on their doorstep without clocking up travel miles and helped keep people healthy by encouraging walking, riding and cycling.

“It’s vandalism,” he said. “It is vandalism of the country.

I’m absolutely gobsmacked.”

He said he did not believe the plan was what the Forestry Commission wanted and said jobs have already been lost in Hamsterley last week.

He has called for a referendum on the matter to allow the public to have their say.

A Defra spokesman said: “We will consult on our proposals in the coming weeks to invite interest from a wide range of potential private and civil society partners on a number of new ownership options and the means to secure public benefits. No decisions have been taken on any particular sites.

“We will not compromise the protection of our most valuable and biodiverse forests. The Forestry Commission has and will play an important role in protecting and expanding the trees, woods and forests in England.”